Policymakers: Stop Being Agnostic about Curriculum

by Guest Blogger
January 29th, 2014

This post originally appeared on Common Core Watch, a blog by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.


Pop quiz! Which of the following statements is in the Common Core State Standards?

(a) Through extensive reading of stories, dramas, poems, and myths from diverse cultures and different time periods, students gain literary and cultural knowledge.

(b) By reading texts in history/social studies, science, and other disciplines, students build a foundation of knowledge in these fields that will also give them the background to be better readers in all content areas.

(c) At a curricular or instructional level, texts—within and across grade levels—need to be selected around topics or themes that systematically develop the knowledge base of students.

(d) Having students listen to informational read-alouds in the early grades helps lay the necessary foundation for students’ reading and understanding of increasingly complex texts on their own in subsequent grades.

(e) All of the above.

The answer is e, all of the above. Knowledge is the key to reading comprehension. It’s the key to college, career, and citizenship readiness. It’s the key to meeting the Common Core standards. (see pages 10 and 33of the standards—and for even more on building knowledge, see page 6 and Apendix A page 33).

To be even more blunt, the standards require a “content-rich curriculum” (page 6) that is “intentionally and coherently structured to develop rich content knowledge within and across grades” (page 10).

If you are a master teacher with a supportive administrator and collaborative colleagues, the standards give you all the guidance you need. Between the model on page 33 and the research summary in Appendix A, there’s a clear vision for creating a curriculum that systematically builds knowledge.

Knowledge-driven careers courtesy of Shutterstock.

But if you are a state-level policymaker or district superintendent, the path forward is murkier. You don’t want to mandate a curriculum, but you do need to encourage all schools to adopt, adapt, or create more rigorous, coherent, knowledge-building curricula. What to do? Four models are worth considering—two at the state level and two at the district level.

Focus on Alignment: Massachusetts

Starting in the 1990s, Massachusetts began taking the whole idea of a standards-based education system very seriously. The Bay State created instructional frameworks that were (relative to other states, if not to many other nations) very content specific. What students had to learn was clear, which enabled teachers to collaborate on a much deeper level. Policymakers got three big things right: First, they did not mandate pedagogy. Second, they actually based the MCAS exams on the instructional frameworks. (Many other states had standards and assessments, but the standards were so vague that virtually any assessments could claim to be aligned with them. As a result, the standards did not truly guide instruction, setting up an assessment-based guessing game for teachers.) Third, they stayed the course for many years—standing firm against allegations that the standards were too high and the tests too hard and, crucially, being far more supportive than punitive. For many years, the emphasis was on framework-based teacher preparation and ongoing professional development. The results (nationally and internationally) have been spectacular.

Provide a Model: New York

While I can empathize with educators who feel that New York is moving too fast with the Common Core, I must also credit the state for heading in the right direction. New York realized that the standards would mean major instructional shifts, and has been working to provide—but not mandate—curricular resources to help teachers make those shifts. The EngageNY website is a rich resource; teachers throughout the Empire State and far beyond are using it to better understand the Common Core. (Full disclosure: Core Knowledge Language Arts was chosen by New York as the model ELA curriculum for preschool–second grade implementation of the standards.) Massachusetts took about a decade to fully implement its standards-based system; I predict that New York will figure out ways to heed educators’ concerns while staying the course.

Build Your Own: Washington, D.C.

Like New York, the District of Columbia realized that the Common Core requires a content-rich curriculum. It also saw many benefits for students and teachers when a district has a shared, specific, curricular plan: Students endure fewer gaps and repetitions when they change schools and teachers are able to learn more from each other. Being large enough to have adequate resources and small enough to engage in district-wide initiatives, the District of Columbia Public Schools has gotten teachers involved in writing Common Core–aligned Scope and Sequence guides for each grade. This is especially important because of the city’s high rates of teacher turnover and student mobility. States that don’t want to follow New York’s path could incentivize districts to follow D.C.’s path. Even a small initiative, such as funding three to five districts, would help the whole state by creating multiple curricular models for other districts to adopt or adapt.

Invest in R&D: New York City

A few years before the Common Core, New York City tiptoed into analyzing the efficacy of different curricula. This is worth mentioning not because of the quality of the study (a small pilot) and not because of the programs being tested (Core Knowledge Language Arts was one), but because comparisons of curricula are desperately needed. As Brookings scholars Russ Whitehurst and Matt Chingos have explained, instructional materials can have as large an impact on learning as teacher quality—and programs are much easier to change than people—yet little is known about various materials’ relative effectiveness. Large districts like NYC—and all districts with state support—have the capacity to conduct more and better research. To make the most of the Common Core, we need to create content-rich curricula and commit to an ongoing R&D process that drives continuous improvement in curriculum and instruction.

Curriculum alone, no matter how good, is no silver bullet. But it should be the foundation for all other education work. From teacher preparation and professional development to assessment and accountability to student remediation and enrichment, the education enterprise is more effective and efficient when it rests on a clear statement of what students are to learn in each grade.



  1. I completely agree with this post and your previous “oxygen” post. They are completely logical and get right to the basics of how to achieve quality education outcomes: (1) defining the learning objectives at operational levels and (2) building skills on cohesive knowledge foundations.

    While this blog and its commenters tend to concentrate on achieving reading skills proficiency through knowledge building, knowledge building is essential for all skills in every subject including math and science. A chef needs knowledge of food; a carpenter needs knowledge of materials; and a doctor needs knowledge of tissue. And, we can’t forget that skills also provide a foundation for more complex skills. Both knowledge and skills provide scaffolding for learning advancement.

    The Core Knowledge Sequence is a perfect example of systematic and cohesive content definition. It’s a Sudoku grid for education. Every grade row and subject column of content is intentionally sequenced and horizontally integrated for cohesion. It doesn’t matter “how” you teach it or the education model followed, a clear definition of learning expectations is needed as the education system foundation.

    We aren’t going to move from today’s stagnated learning achievement without clear objectives and breaking away from managing learning with letter grades that hide and condone learning gaps. With clear objectives, we can manage learning at the operational content level, exposing and closing gaps at the earliest opportunity.

    Comment by Tom Sundstrom — January 29, 2014 @ 4:06 pm

  2. Lisa,

    You’re Massachusetts summary is correct with the exception of its professional development commitment. Many districts simply have gone through the motions on professional development, some of these actually being an enormous waste of time.

    The content specific frameworks have been our strength. For this we have the standards developers to thank. Too bad other states, as well as the CC, have not mirrored this strategy.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — January 30, 2014 @ 11:05 am

  3. The more and more opposition I hear to providing students a solid, sequenced body of knowledge, the more I wonder if this opposition stems from either 1) you disagree with it, or 2) you are either incapable of or have no desire to teach it.

    For those who fall into the “#1″ category, please state your alternatives. It’s clear to me that those ‘alternatives’ have been what we’ve done, in urban schools particularly, for the past 40-50 years, and it’s failed miserably.

    If you fall into the “#2″ category I suspect you’d never admit it, or just hide it behind the “#1″ category. I watched and listened to my Washington, DC Public School teacher parents complain bitterly about these teachers, bureaucrats, and politicians through the 70′s and 80′s, and I’ve experienced that same attitude among too many of the same folk teaching in Los Angeles in the 90′s until the present.

    Comment by Peter Ford — February 1, 2014 @ 1:32 am

  4. @Peter,

    The primary opposition I’ve encountered through readings and education blogs stems from the body of knowledge authors. Critics are dumbfounded that anyone believes they can prescribe a body of knowledge all kids should know.

    They go on in an attempt to point out that it’s also akin to a one-size-fits-all philosophy, which some folks oppose.

    Comment by Paul Hoss — February 3, 2014 @ 4:58 pm

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